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Feature Story - September 2008

Special Report: Safety in Construction

Safety-Culture Clash Meant 13 Workers Never Made It Home

By Tony Illia

Schedule-obsessed Las Vegas megaprojects are exacting a toll on the army of fatigued crafts on the Strip.

Every day, craft workers with sun-baked faces and calloused hands ready themselves for another shift of construction on the Las Vegas Strip, trading jokes before toting their plastic coolers onto the site. The favorite uniform is a short-sleeved cotton T-shirt suited to the 100°-plus temperatures.

Workers hold a one-day strike on the sidewalk along the Las Vegas Strip in front of CityCenter after the May 31 crane death at the site. (Photo by Tony Illia)
Workers hold a one-day strike on the sidewalk along the Las Vegas Strip in front of CityCenter after the May 31 crane death at the site. (Photo by Tony Illia)

The workers face hazards even more dangerous than the sun, and over the past two years, 13 never made it home. One was Dustin “Doobie” Tarter, 39, who was crushed by a crane counterweight system at the CityCenter project on May 31. An affable, fun-loving man, Tarter’s death unlocked pent-up resentment over the accidents, and 100 union workers began picketing CityCenter and the nearby Cosmopolitan jobsites and chanting, “No more death.”

Within a day, the key contractor at CityCenter, Phoenix-based Perini Building Co., agreed with the Southern Nevada Building and Construction Trades Council that all workers would receive the 10-hour federal safety training and be sent to additional safety meetings. Also, union officials and safety directors would gain full jobsite access. Most or all of what was agreed to already had been discussed or agreed to by the contractor and the unions.

The bigger question is, why did it take so long to ratchet up safety? The 13 construction-related fatalities on the Las Vegas Strip are more than the city saw during the entire 1990s building boom. But in the last two years there was a difference. Resort owners and their contractors were building on a vast scale, gathering thousands of disparate craft workers in the cauldron of the Nevada desert, then asking them to meet ambitious schedules with inadequate regard to fatigue. Workers claim the owners weren’t stressing safety as much as schedule, and industry experts say that contractors failed to scale up the safety effort to the level of the construction boom.

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Nevada, which has a state-operated safety agency, also failed to keep pace with the boom by not adding staff, and the agency often reduced its safety fines from those initially proposed to a mere financial blip.

The $9.2 billion, 76-acre CityCenter complex will be bigger than Rockefeller Center and Times Square combined. Developer MGM Mirage Inc. says it is the largest privately financed project in U.S. history. Workers gave the site their own grim nickname: CityCemetary.

In prior decades, casino operators built one megaresort at a time, with additional towers coming in separate, stand-alone phases. Today’s projects, like CityCenter and the $4.8 billion, 12 million-sq-ft Echelon, which was recently put on hold further north on the Strip, are different. Rising raw-material prices, competition for skilled workers, financing costs and the push to create the next must-see extravaganza have led to much more simultaneous construction. And expensive real estate means that sixty-story towers now rise where 20 stories would have sufficed in prior decades.

“This level and complexity of construction is unprecedented,” says Greg McClelland, safety director for the Ironworkers Compensation Trust.

Local building trade unions have ramped-up apprenticeship programs and recruited heavily from out of state, waiving local fees and transferring pension and health benefits, in order to attract the workers needed to staff megaprojects. Laborers’ union Local 872 has doubled to 3,500 members, including 200 floaters, working on The Strip. Union officials worry that workers from the Midwest, Rust Belt and East Coast lack or exaggerate their experience.

“Many are coming from the Midwest where they would never have an opportunity to work on a project of this magnitude,” says Las Vegas Councilman Steven D. Ross, secretary-treasurer of the Southern Nevada Building and Construction Trades Council. “We’re trying to bring everyone up to a higher standard.”

With sweltering daytime heat creating danger of dehydration and nights that are anything but dry, the city itself is a hazard. “It takes a certain discipline to work in Las Vegas,” says McClelland. “We have workers making $2,000 a week in a town where the bars never close. Several companies have men walking the jobsite looking for guys with that thousand-yard stare. If they’ve been up too late, we’ll send them home.”

How many workers are hurt because of drug and alcohol use is not clear. Although all employees are tested before hiring, CityCenter, for example, has no random-testing program. Unions consider it an invasion of privacy, but employers say they want it and think it would help.

Overdoing Overtime

Workers are often their own worst enemies, wearing themselves down with additional hours for lucrative overtime pay. The hours are readily available for those willing to push themselves longer and harder. Tight economic times have created many volunteers eagerly seeking “double-backs,” or back-to-back work shifts, for extra income. Workers, in some instances, say they try to make up the difference for lost income of a recently laid-off spouse or significant other.

“It’s like a drip-line to a junkie,” says Joe Taylor, executive director of the Southern Nevada Laborers-Employers Cooperation and Education Trust. “It raises the standard of living with overtime, and they soon become focused on the money.”

A number of the deaths occurred during early-morning hours, when workers may not be fully alert or are rushing to finish a nighttime shift, sources point out. Did fatigue help kill Lyndall Bates? He was a 49-year-old carpenter who died on June 17 at the Echelon project while disassembling a piece of scaffolding to which he was tied off. He struck his head in a 15-ft fall at 7:20 a.m.

“Productivity rates are different here than other parts of the country,” says one longtime Las Vegas contractor who asked not to be identified. “We work...faster. A typical 38-month project in Atlantic City would be expected to finish six to eight months sooner in Las Vegas. That is the standard that has been created.”

Casino giants such as MGM Mirage pay for fast-track, 24-hour construction, and contract terms include incentives and penalties. Perini, for instance, is general contractor on the $3.9 billion Cosmopolitan Resort & Casino, located directly across from CityCenter. Both are being built under negotiated, guaranteed maximum-price contracts, and Cosmopolitan carries $50,000 a day in possible bonuses or penalties starting Dec. 18, 2009. Like on CityCenter, crews work around the clock. Cosmopolitan has had two jobsite deaths since November.

Superhuman Schedules

“Owners of these projects are demanding some pretty strict schedules,” says McClelland. “[They] have actually mandated certain performance indicators and minimum numbers of work hours in the contract.”

Some see the project schedules as unrealistic. CityCenter, for example, is being built in the same time frame that it took to complete the adjacent $1.6 billion, 37-story Bellagio Resort Casino, which is only one building encompassing 25% the amount of space.

In the field, craft workers say they sometimes feel pressured by project managers, superintendents and fellow workers to meet schedule milestones. Verbal jabs, intimidation and peer pressure are used to prod workers onward. Those who fall behind can become targets of ridicule or risk being reassigned to undesirable tasks that are viewed as punishment or retribution.

How much a big contractor or project owner is responsible for jobsite safety remains unclear, and that is part of the problem. Owners and construction managers could be considered “controlling employers” for safety purposes under multi-employer worksite rules, but they have not been enforced, says one safety expert.

Perini Corp. has had more accidents than any other Strip contractor. Company officials declined to comment for this story, but they previously have said they are doing all they can to protect workers and that each loss is painful.

Since the uproar over the accidents, Perini is paying for everyone at CityCenter to receive the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s 10-hour safety training, and the company has placed many more safety staff on site.

Although Perini had ramped up its safety spending in recent years, it had yet to develop the elaborate, written safety mission and culture that some other big construction employers have. “I don’t think there was much more than lip service paid to safety on those jobs before the strike,” says Steve Holloway, executive vice president of the Las Vegas Chapter of the Associated General Contractors. Perini is not an AGC member nor part of its multi-employer collective-bargaining unit.

At the site, workers blame management and employers blame workers for the breakdown in the safety culture, says a safety researcher who has visited the Las Vegas sites to investigate the problems.

Whatever the reason for the failure, the safety battle cry is finally being heard. “We now have carpenters whose hammers are tethered to them so that they don’t get dropped and hit someone,” says Marc Furman of the carpenters’ union. “Everyone is now tied off.”

Lives Lost On The Strip

2006

December 5 Isidro “Willie” Pelayo, 39, Laborer Foreman Trump International Hotel & Tower Las Vegas General Contractor: Perini Building Co. Thrown from malfunctioning buggy into elevator shaft.

2007

February 6 Bobby Lee Tohannie, 44, Carpenter CityCenter General Contractor: Perini Building Co. Crushed inside elevator shaft when concrete form collapsed. Angel Hernandez, 24, Carpenter CityCenter General Contractor: Perini Building Co. Crushed inside elevator shaft when concrete form collapsed.

August 2 Norvin Tsosie, 36, Ironworker (Apprentice) Fontainebleau Las Vegas General Contractor: Turnberry West Construction Subcontractor: Nevada Prefab Engineers Fell following cable-support-system failure.

August 9 Harvey Englander, 65, Operating Engineer CityCenter General Contractor: Perini Building Co. Fell after being struck by descending man-lift counterweight.

August 17 Justin Paul Chapman, 31, Concrete Cutter Palms Place Tower General Contractor: M.J. Dean Construction Fell down elevator shaft after striking head on beam.

October 5 Harold “Rusty” Billingsley, 46, Ironworker CityCenter General Contractor: Perini Building Co. Subcontractor: SME Steel Contractors Fell through opening in floor decking.

November 26 Michael Hanson, 42, Laborer The Palazzo Resort Hotel Casino General Contractor: Taylor International Corp. Struck in head by piece of concrete slab raised by forklift.

November 27 David Rabun, Jr., 30, Ironworker Apprentice Cosmopolitan Resort & Casino General Contractor: Perini Building Co. Subcontractor: Schuff Steel Fell after I-beam spreader broke free from wall.

2008

January 14 Michael Taylor, 58, Safety Engineer Cosmopolitan Resort & Casino General Contractor: Perini Building Co. Subcontractor: Reliable Steel Fell after guardrail corner support collapsed.

April 26 Mark Wescoat, 47, Electrician CityCenter General Contractor: Perini Building Co. Subcontractor: Fisk Electric Co. Fell about 25 ft.

May 31 Dustin Tarter, 39, Operating Engineer CityCenter General Contractor: Perini Building Co. Subcontractor: Dielco Crane Co. Crushed while oiling crane-counterweight system.

June 17 Lyndall Bates, 49, Carpenter Echelon Las Vegas Construction Manager: Tishman Construction Corp. Subcontractor: Marnell Corrao Associates Fell after mistakenly dismantling scaffolding piece to which he was tied off.

 

Crane Safety

Crane-Related Fatalities Soar Nationwide

By Tony Illia, with Debra Wood, Craig Barner, Eileen Schwartz

Two crane accidents in Dallas, Texas in June killed one worker and injured three others. Texas, which does not require crane personnel to be certified, led the country in crane-related worker fatalities in 2005-06, with a combined 26 deaths out of 157, reports the U.S. Department of Labor. Texas has already recorded five crane-related deaths in 2008.

In New York, workers lost control of a six-ton bracing collar at the 18th floor of a 205-ft-tall tower crane on March 15, resulting in seven deaths and 24 people being injured, several critically. The tower was being erected when it tilted away from the structure under construction, slammed into the 15th-story parapet of a building across the street and sent crane components crashing through smaller buildings on the next street. Preliminary findings point to a failure of temporary nylon webbing supports.

OSHA, in response, will release a proposed revision of its crane-and-derrick standard this summer. Industry groups have criticized the federal agency for studying the issue for over three years without acting.

Florida has moved at a similar pace, introducing a state tower-crane safety bill in the Legislature for two years running that has yet to make it out of committee.

Two people died at Miami’s Paramount Bay condominium project March 25 when tower crane segments crashed through the roof of a home being used by contractor Bovis Lend Lease of New York as a jobsite office.

Miami-Dade County had passed a crane safety ordinance a week before but it hadn’t gone into effect. In May, a coalition of Florida construction organizations filed suit in federal court and obtained an injunction prohibiting Miami-Dade County from enforcing the ordinance, expressing fear that the requirements could shut down projects.

“Fifteen years ago, someone got killed on a jobsite and no one knew about it, other than the immediate people, but now a crane falls down in New York and the rest of the country knows about it in 15 minutes,” says John Murphy, safety director for Suffolk Construction Co.’s Florida Division in West Palm Beach. His company requires every crane assembled on a Suffolk jobsite to undergo a third-party inspection to ensure it meets the manufacturer’s specification limitations.

The Midwest, by contrast, has been spared from the raft of recent crane incidents due to a July 1999 wakeup call when a crane dubbed “big blue” collapsed at the then-under-construction Miller Park in Milwaukee, killing three workers.

“That catastrophe did focus the construction industry, crane manufacturers and suppliers and [OSHA] on the horrible potential that the loss of crane stability can have in terms of lives lost and damage and destruction to anything in its path,” says Thomas Broderick, executive director of the Construction Safety Council, a Hillside, Ill.-based national trade organization.

He adds that OSHA Region 5, which covers the Midwest, has a “strong contingency” of construction background personnel with “about half of the agency’s resources dedicated to enforcement of construction-safety standards.”

 

 

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